Putting Infrastructure Cash to Work

By Lindsay R Mohlere

The federal government is finally putting its money where its mouth is by the implementation of Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.

It’s all part of the huge infrastructure plan the Biden administration inked a few months ago. The work will focus on confronting the wildfire crisis in the Northwest region to reduce wildfire risk to communities and support forest health. The first blush is $131 million, of which $29.1 million in funds will be directed to increasing treatment on two landscapes in the Pacific Northwest Region.

With this new strategy of protecting communities, comes new vocabulary. Today’s hot word is “Fireshed.” Wildfire moves across the land based on fuels, wind, and terrain and often moves in and out of drainages and watersheds. As defined, a fireshed is an area where social and ecological concerns regarding wildfire overlap and are intertwined, or rather a boundary between places in which a wildfire would move in different directions.

According to the Forest Service, less than ten percent of firesheds are responsible for 80 percent of community exposure to wildfire. In Oregon and Washington, fireshed areas have been identified and fit within the scheme of the landscape-scale approach that is necessary for improving overall forest health and resiliency.

FirebreakThe two landscapes in question span national forest, state, and private lands. In Washington, the work will focus on five high-risk firesheds across four central Washington counties and on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. In Oregon, the selected landscapes include the Deschutes National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland.

These initial landscapes are the first part of a large-scale, science-backed strategy designed to focus additional support to landscapes where treatments will have the most immediate and greatest effect. Restoration work across this landscape capitalizes on strong, existing partnerships to reduce the risk of wildfire through targeted investments over the next 10 years.

All this has the blessing of the states, tribes, partners, and communities to conduct fuel reduction treatments, including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, along with aquatic restoration.

The funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will kick in this year on 24,000 acres in Washington and 5,000 acres in Oregon. Down the road, another 175,000 acres are targeted between 2022 to 2024.

Hopefully, the radical forest litigators will stay out of the way as this strategy unfolds. It’s a long-range plan that has some legs. I say let it run.

Grim Outlook for Firefighter Staffing

Fire season this year has got everyone shaking in their boots, and well they should. New Mexico’s Cerro Pelado and Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fires that incinerated more than a quarter million acres, and California’s Coastal Fire that devoured millions of dollars of prime real estate in an afternoon, kicked off the game. However, it seems the Forest Service is a few steps behind the front line. Word has it that it’s short thousands of wildland firefighters as fire season 2022 starts.

The U.S. Forest Service was thinking hunky-dory with the new funding brought on by the massive infrastructure infusion. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

Promised a $600 million pay raise approved by Congress, which pencils out to raises of about $20,000 a year, fire crews were expecting a shot at a decent living wage. It was a good carrot, but firefighters have yet to see a cent of it. The funding is stuck in the bureaucratic mud ball as the government figures out how to implement the raises. Yup, here it comes, the firefighters are getting the short end of the stick once again.

Even the designated mouthpiece, Forest Service Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, got her foot stuck in the mess when she said the agency has 90% of the staff. In fact only 73% of the force is on track to battle this year’s fires.

Meanwhile, federal firefighters, who battle fires in national forests, rangelands, and other federally owned properties, are quitting in large numbers, while a broad, nationwide labor shortage is making it more difficult to recruit replacements. Compounding the wage debacle, firefighters are facing affordable housing shortages—which adds another log to the fire.

The crews sticking around and gearing up for fire season are worried. According to data obtained by BuzzFeed News, without a serious staffing push, engines will sit idle, helicopters will stay on the ground, and crews won’t be able to start the season on time.

With forecasters predicting another savage fire season, you would think the bureaucrats would put in the hurry up. Granted it’s a tight labor market and there’s a lot of competition for firefighter skills, but bringing the new salary guidelines up to parity with private, county, and state crews would certainly open the doors for more recruits. Firefighters with the Forest Service earn about $38,000 per year, while their counterparts working for private or state firefighting agencies make closer to $70,000 to $80,000, acting Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen said in a hearing last year. Entry-level firefighters make as little as $15 per hour, less than a burger flipper at your local drive-in.

Those holding the purse strings need to quit playing acey-duecy with this budget stuff and ante up to keep and attract crews, and then get them trained up and in the field. It’s ridiculous to think that they’re going to leave $600 million sitting on the table while the house burns around them.

What to Expect from Fire Season 2022

This year could be uglier than most. Record drought and other elements of climate change have stacked the deck. So far in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, wet and cooler weather patterns have helped stave off early season flare-ups, but you can bet that’s going to change. And that change could happen very quickly.

We might get lucky, but the indicators are stacked against us. So far nearly 400,000 acres have burned in 11 uncontained large fires across several states. More than 4,600 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to incidents. Eight incident management teams (IMT) are assigned to large fires in the Southwest area. One complex IMT is committed to the High Park Fire in Colorado. Evacuation orders are in place for the Hermit’s Peak, Black, and Cerro Pelado fires in New Mexico, the High Park fire in Colorado, and the Blue Lakes fire in Michigan.

To date, 25,637 wildfires have burned 1.3 million acres. This continues to be well above the 10-year average of 18,945 wildfires that have burned 753,855 acres. Long-term forecasts indicate a hot and dry summer across the entire United States — potentially fueling quick-spreading fires in many different parts of the country.

Bottom line. It doesn’t look good. Might be a good idea to keep those COVID masks handy. They might help if you’re outside in the smoke.

That’s a wrap.

Talk back at twfirecolumn

Stay safe out there.

(Source: USDA, Wildfire Today, OPB,
NIFC, Register Guard, USFS)

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore Announces Pause of Prescribed Fire Operations

Because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field, I am initiating a pause on prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.  

Our primary goal in engaging prescribed fires and wildfires is to ensure the safety of the communities involved. The communities we serve and our employees deserve the very best tools and science supporting them as we continue to navigate toward reducing the risk of severe wildfires in the future. 

In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned. In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires.  

The review I am announcing today will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.   

TimberWest November/December 2013
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